Golden Age of Lon­don’s Coffee Houses

This England - - News - IAN SAMSON

Sa­muel Pepys raved about them, Charles Dick­ens wrote his un­for­get­table char­ac­ters into them and many gave birth to our most fa­mous in­sti­tu­tions. For 200 years Lon­don’s colour­ful coffee houses played a sparkling role in the life of the na­tion. For as lit­tle as a penny they promised a cup of steam­ing fresh coffee among lively com­pany and laugh­ter and, some claimed, a uni­ver­sitylevel ed­u­ca­tion for life.

So great a Univer­si­tie I think there ne’er was any In which you may a scholar be For spend­ing a Penny.

So re­ported News From The Coffee Houses in 1677 de­light­ing in the extraordinary value for money to be found in the cap­i­tal’s coffee houses. In those days, with­out ra­dio and tele­vi­sion, speak­ing-out pub­licly was one of the only ways to be heard.

In the warm com­pan­ion­ship of the coffee house al­most any­one want­ing to share their lat­est idea or opin­ion could be sure of a lis­ten­ing ear. For only a penny, coffee was served in such a wel­com­ing at­mos­phere many pa­trons claimed they spent more time there than in their own home. Not sur­pris­ingly coffee house lanterns glowed well into the night.

It all started in 1650 when the rich aroma of coffee wafted through the streets of Ox­ford as the first-ever coffee house opened its doors. Shortly af­ter, the Pasqa Rosee of­fered its at­trac­tions in Lon­don’s St. Michael’s Al­ley. To­gether they launched a fash­ion that was to give birth to 3,000 coffee houses in Lon­don by the mid18th cen­tury.

Lead­ing wits and ex­perts of the day were soon at­tracted to them and the idea grew that for a mere tri­fle, pa­trons would be ed­u­cated to univer­sity stan­dard.

In an age when know­ing your place was im­por­tant the coffee houses beck­oned to ev­ery­one. “All Peo­ple May Here Be Seen” was a motto seen in many of Lon­don’s venues. Vis­i­tors from abroad were amazed to see or­di­nary folk reg­u­larly por­ing over pa­pers and dis­cussing the lat­est po­lit­i­cal scene. Still, pa­trons did favour their own spe­cial haunts. The coffee houses of West­min­ster and White­hall rang with the gos­sip of politi­cians and ad­mir­ers of high-so­ci­ety while Sa­muel Pepys sparked the rep­u­ta­tion of Wills in Covent Gar­den as the “favourite of the wits in town”. Charles Dick­ens lived only a few steps away from Woods at Fur­ni­val Inn, Hol­born, when he be­gan to write Pick­wick Pa­pers.

In other coffee houses, part­ner­ships and busi­ness plans were hatched and grew into spec­tac­u­lar suc­cesses. In­sur­ance un­der­writ­ers founded the world fa­mous Lloyd’s of Lon­don in a coffee house and the Stock Ex­change and Com­mer­cial Union be­gan in a sim­i­lar way.

Even post­ing a let­ter over­seas be­came no prob­lem. A quick trip to the lo­cal haunt pro­vided pa­trons with pa­per, pens, ink and news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. Re­porters, known as run­ners, cir­cu­lated among the coffee rooms keep­ing ev­ery­one up-to­date with the lat­est news.

Coffee re­mained pop­u­lar into Ge­or­gian times, when it be­gan to suf­fer from com­pe­ti­tion from tea. It failed to be­come the na­tional drink and could only be af­forded by the well-

off. To­wards the end of the coffee house era many havens re­turned to their orig­i­nal role of tav­ern or wine house.

But by then, Lon­don’s coffee houses had kin­dled an as­ton­ish­ing level of so­cia­bil­ity among all classes of the pop­u­la­tion. That open­ness gave birth to creativ­ity and in­no­va­tion on a re­mark­able scale and even to­day we are reap­ing ben­e­fits from those won­der­fully wel­com­ing penny uni­ver­si­ties of by­gone days.

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